Woodlawn’s Diverse History

Woodlawn’s Diverse History

Beyond the Gentry

Andean woven alpaca hat, made by Ozcollo Espinoza

Andean woven alpaca hat, made by Ozcollo Espinoza

“Hanson’s mode of making chicken broth, the best in the world,” wrote Nelly Lewis in her housekeeping book at Woodlawn between 1828 and 1830. “If you wish it very nourishing – break the bones with a rolling pin before you put it into the pot.” 

Hanson was Nelly and Lawrence Lewis’s cook, a man Nelly inherited in 1802. This chicken broth recipe is just one revealing gem in Woodlawn’s new exhibit that unravels several centuries of history and unveils the diverse people who lived and toiled there over the years, stories previously untold or obscured. Guides at historic homes and southern plantations have traditionally focused on the white, wealthy owners. Think George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Woodlawn’s curators are now telling the complex, intertwined stories of the many people associated with this land and buildings over time.


The Doegs

The exhibit starts with “Offerings for Tauxenent: Acknowledging Indigenous Place,” highlighting the Doeg people and their displacement. Tauxenent was a village of the Doeg or Dogue people near the mouth of the Occoquan River that English Captain John Smith encountered in 1608. The Doeg people lived in what is now Northern Virginia as far back as the 14th century. Some Doeg descendants today are members of the Rappahannock and Piscataway tribes.

For this exhibit, George Mason University history students, led by Dr. Gabrielle Tayac, a member of the Piscataway Tribe, connected with contemporary local Indigenous eastern hemisphere communities, whose objects on display are offerings honoring the Doeg people. For example, there’s a colorful woven bag by Diego Velasco Perez, a Maya Ixil, and a woven alpaca hat by Ozcollo Espinoza, a member of the Andean community in Northern Virginia.

Also exhibited is a grindstone and stone scraper from the Gray family, descendants of the Doegs. Schirra Gray loaned a pine needle turtle basket.


African-Americans and Quakers 

A second exhibit, “Woodlawn: People and Perspectives,” explores others who shaped Woodlawn over time, including the around 100 people of African descent that the Lewises enslaved. Visitors can study four triangular bricks with one rounded edge made by enslaved people for the original columns on the front portico. “The stories of the enslaved people who built Woodlawn brick by brick are inseparable from the story of this home,” notes the display.

In 1846, a group of Quakers bought Woodlawn and lived and worshipped in the mansion until they built farmhouses and a meeting house. They created a “free labor colony” to demonstrate that farming could be successful without slavery, an alternative to Virginia’s plantation culture.

In the two decades before the Civil War, free Black families such as the Hollands purchased land and built communities alongside Quaker families like the Troths. Visitors learn that William Holland, freed in 1799, bought land in 1851 when the Quakers divided the land into family farms and sold it to free blacks like him. Some of the enslaved Parkers were sold by Alexandria’s Franklin and Armfield who had a slave pen at 1315 Duke Street and shipped slaves to Louisiana plantations.


Belvoir’s Takeover

Another rarely-told story is that of Fort Belvoir, formerly Camp Humphreys, which in World War I began to take over Woodlawn’s farmland. Renamed Fort Belvoir, to expand the installation, the federal government in the 1940s condemned some of Woodlawn’s land and demolished farms, homes, a church, school and lodges of Woodlawn’s Black community. Many Black people living there relocated to Gum Springs, founded in 1833, and today Gum Springs is the oldest surviving Black community in Fairfax County. The federal government left the Quaker Meeting House intact. It is still in use today.

Woodlawn’s exhibits trace other owners of the property too, up to 1957 when the National Trust for Historic Preservation bought it and it became the first historic Trust site open to the public.

The Exhibits at Woodlawn

Offerings for Tauxenent: 

* Acknowledging Indigenous Place, until Aug. 30, 2024

* Woodlawn: People and Perspectives, until Dec. 31, 2024